This interdisciplinary panel re-addresses the role of intermediaries in S. Asian economy and society. The hypothesis explored is that they are not merely parasites but often perform necessary and essential functions, habitually overlooked by development economists and economic historians.
The current stories of 'development' and its practices in South Asia demand a re-assessment of the social and political order in which the role of dalals, brokers, labour recruiters, and other intermediaries have acquired unprecedented prominence in shaping local politics, economics and social life. Contemporary development literature views them as (political) intermediaries between development institutions and peasant society: the outcome of a weak state presence in areas where the institutions of formal governance are not yet established. They are regarded as a negative form of patron-client relationship within civil society. In this scenario, the image of brokers is that of a influential yet marginal and vulnerable local elite. But are they really so marginal? Do they undermine state authority and market functions or act to reinforce them? And are they an integral aspect within complex indigenous structures of governance? Colonial literature is filled with tales of corrupt middlemen. It was as if the existence of intermediaries was the only thing standing between the peasant and prosperity - which we know is not the case. This discourse has been inherited by successive, paternalistic, developmental regimes. One of the consequences is a continuing obsession with low-level corruption, which acts as a surrogate for addressing the more substantive problems in delivering services and information in rural areas. This inter-disciplinary panel calls for a re-appraisal of the subaltern intermediary, broker or 'go-between' and seeks to resolve a contradiction that lies at the heart of contemporary developmental thinking.